Reflections on Maharishi Yogi

February 8, 2008


Maharishi Mahesh Yogi died this week, the founder and leader of a world-wide movement. He profoundly influenced the lives of millions of followers, and offers an exemplar in modern times of the charismatic spiritual leader

A homily would map the achievements of the special one. A critique would balance and evaluate the views of the faithful and detractors. I feel only able to offer a few reflections.


In death, it appears that details of his origins are suitably shrouded in some mystery. He may have been born as early as 1911, or as late as 1918. As an infant, he may have been known as Mahesh Prasad Varma, or as Mahesh Srivastava.

More clearly documented is the influence of his spiritual guide, Swami Brahmanda Saraswati, from whom he developed his lifelong interest in the transcendent.

It is now part of the world’s assessment, that the Maharishi’s impact on the mundane world of current affairs reached its peak in the 1960s, accelerated by his celebrity followers, and particularly the Beatles.

Popular knowledge may also extend to identifying him with the growth through his teachings and writings, of the Transcendental Meditation movement and its associated spiritual, educational, and political activities. Followers claim upward of five million are devoting a period each morning and night to their observances.

The Contradictions

As publicity and attention grew, so did detractors. He was mocked for the contradictions in his life and his words. Could his views on the pointlessness of material possessions be squared with manifestations of resources gained? Did the claim of chastity come under strain in a rock cave, in a story with echoes of A Passage to India?
Not so much contradictions, but equally baffling to outsiders, were claims for the power of thought to change world events, and exercises involving yogic flying.

A Special Charisma?

The term charismatic has been applied to people in many walks of life, departing from earlier treatments of charisma which specifically referred to a spiritual or transcendent force transmitted to followers from a leader possessing supernatural endowments.

Perhaps we should borrow a classification from another field. We talk of special and everyday creativity.

So why not special and everyday charisma? The classification is still too crude to accommodate the variations, and I’m not comfortable with results attempting to place people at different levels, with the great prophets at the top, exceptional historical and modern leaders on the slopes, and gradations of everyday leaders of business, politics, and sporting teams towards the base of this conceptual Mount Olympus.

In previous posts I have written about Nelson Mandela, who probably remains highest up the mountain for me. Mandela also had the advantage of privilege of birth, and born to lead his people. The Maharishi was, under the Indian caste system, unable to be nominated as the chosen spiritual heir to Swami Brahmanda Saraswati. He had the overturn traditional leadership norms, providing another belief system with himself at the head. Which is what he did.

Other charismatics

In sport we blogged about Kevin Keegan, hailed as the Messiah recently on his return to Newcastle United (his third-coming as he modestly put it at the time). Where should we place Kevin? Alongside the self-styled special one Jose Mourinho?

And where might Tony Blair fit in?

Further down the mountain, there are those whose charisma is acquired through contact with a special one. This is the process of routinization of charisma, which is needed to explain how charisma persists over time.

Leadership lessons

Some say we are moving into a period of post-charismatic leadership. But the Maharishi’s story may still serve to help us compare and contrast the behaviours of so-called charismatic leaders, and the ways in which they achieve influence over others.

Things leaders say: Nick Clegg and Mental Health Costs

February 8, 2008


Leaders build arguments often with creative use of statistics. Take Nick Clegg’s statement today, that the costs of mis-managing Mental Health amount to a 19% cut in the basic rate of income tax

Nick Clegg has made a good start as leader of the Liberal Democrats. He continues to present an articulate and attractive persona, and has generally advanced the kind of third way policies in the tradiiton of Liberal (Democratic) thought.

The rhetorical trick of the false analogy

But he found himself tempted into using the rhetorical trick of the false analogy today, in announcing his party’s views on the problems of Mental Health Care in the United Kingdom.

He is right to suggest that Mental Health Care receives inadequate attention compared to other elements within the NHS. But how to make this point in a more striking fashion?

Answer: Find a startlingly big figure to ‘prove’ how much money is being wasted. Find a simple way of visualising the problem, by showing how much could be done with the money saved.

How often have we heard other attacks on a Government’s profligacy backed up with killer phrase such as ‘and that could provide three extra three hospitals’ or ‘that’s the equivalent to another eighteen hundred police on the beat, instead of doing paperwork’?

Let’s see how Nick developed his argument

I caught the interview on Radio Five Live [Friday 8th January 2008]. Nick Clegg interviewed by Nicky Campbell.

Mr Clegg built a convincing case that much needed to be done to ameliorate the suffering of patients in need of Mental Health treatment. But what about the costs of care?

The costs of care, he argued, would be more than compensated, because the current system is not just bad for the sufferers, but but in terms of costs of long-term after care.

His justification went as follows: First he provided an estimate of the inefficiencies, as being seventy-seven million pounds [sterling].

That’s a lot of money. It’s hard to visualize.

Then the dodgy analogy

Seventy-seven billion reprents nineteen percent off the basic rate of income tax.

There you go. A casebook example. Take a political cause. Speak of it with compassion and commitment. But wrap it up with the vocabulary of scientifically estabished facts, using precise sounding fingures, and helpful simplifications.

It’s £77 billion, not ‘a considerable chunk of money’. It represents nineteen percent in the basic rate of interest paid by tax payers. This is not just far too precise a figure, but the dodgy analogy at the same time.

Politicians are used to arguing like this. I can’t say how many really believe that macro-economic changes work so that one type of economic entity can be switched to another kind in its entirety.

Leaders we deserve

Nicky Campbell let it pass, even though he is trying hard to flip from playful family pet into the Rotweiler style of interviewer from time to time. Sadly, I suspect that even our best-in-class BBC Rotweilers are better at snarling, than in helping keep down the dodgy metaphors smuggled into their back yards with their political prey.

Voters may feel we deserve better than this from our politicians. I do, although I don’t want to back up the claim with dodgy statistics.

If you agree, and have the opportunity, join my little rant against the political use of dodgy analogies. Send text messages or emails to the programme which hosted the interview. Blog about it. Even send this post to an offending politician.

Let’s get the leaders we deserve.